Betting On Yourself with Jalen Brunson

Jalen Brunson sits in front of the local Dallas media at his 21-22 Exit Interview. Around his neck hangs a home Maverick's #13 jersey with black scribblings all over it. He quickly reveals to the room of journalists that it has been signed by all of his teammates. Just the day prior, he and those same teammates lost Game Five of the Western Conference Finals and their deep playoff run had come to the end in San Francisco.

By all accounts this was an incredible season by Dallas. A franchise that hadn’t won a playoff series since 2011, not many expected a run this deep. Brunson himself elevated his game and had shining moments in the post-season. But yet, the opening question of his exit interview had little to do with the season or the playoffs. In fact, it had little to do with the past and everything to do with Brunson’s future:

What's your agenda going forward? How much do you talk to your agent going forward...about the obvious elephant in the room?

Unnamed Mav's Reporter

Everyone in the room knows that Brunson is headed towards a large payday. For how much? For how long? With whom? Those questions will all be answered soon enough. Maybe a better question to ask is How Did We Get Here?

Jalen Brunson was one of the most successful men's college basketball players we have seen in quite sometime. During his three years at Villanova the Wildcats went 103-13 and won two NCAA Championships. As an individual, Brunson started 115 of those 116 games and was recognized with numerous awards, none greater than National College Player of the Year in 2018. The only other players to win two titles and win a player of the year are Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton and Christian Laettner. A highly decorated athlete even dating back to his high school years where he was Illinois Mr. Basketball, USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year and won state, all in 2015.

After proving himself at every step on his basketball journey, Brunson decided to forgo his senior season and enter the 2018 NBA draft. Despite a less than favorable draft grade from scouts, Brunson felt he had nothing left to prove and was willing to bet on himself.  While three of his Villanova teammates went in the first round, Brunson fell to the second, going 33rd overall. After being selected by the Dallas Mavericks he negotiated a unique contract for 2nd rounder and we knock over the first domino in the Brunson contract saga. 

A week later than most 2nd round picks had signed, Brunson agreed to a four-year partially guaranteed $6.1M deal on July 16th, 2018. While first-round picks have slotted rookie-scale contracts, second-rounders are free to negotiate length, salary and structure. In Brunson’s contract language, his $1.8M team option for this current season (2021-2022) wasn’t guaranteed but if picked up, it allowed him to become an unrestricted free-agent this off-season. 

Fellow second-rounders signed for an array of deals that year and some didn’t step foot on an NBA Summer League court until their names were on the dotted line. Take Gary Trent Jr., for example. He signed his deal the same day he made his 2018 Summer League debut. Brunson didn’t have an NBA contract until after the completion of the July exhibition. He took a risk of injury or poor play, but it proved a worthy gamble as he was rewarded with a deal similar to that of a first-rounder, with 3-years guaranteed. In addition to allowing him to become an unrestricted Free-Agent in 2022.

Despite being overshadowed by fellow rookie Luka Doncic, Brunson had an immediate impact and showed lots of promise. In his sophomore campaign he battled injuries and would miss the playoffs due to shoulder surgery. Last season, his role increased, as did his scoring and efficiency. He finished 4th in Sixth Man of the Year. Throughout the season there was media speculation of what he might sign for long-term. Then the playoffs happened.

In the first-round seven game series loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Brunson became a mere afterthought. His regular season minutes, 25, were diluted to just 16.3 per game. Those extra minutes were given to Tim Hardaway Jr., who made the most of his increased opportunities. In the end Dallas decided to hold off on extending Brunson, instead picked up his $1.8M team option and re-signing Hardaway with a four-year $70M deal.  

"Dallas could have signed Brunson to a four-year extension for as much as $55.5 million before the season, but the Mavs didn’t offer it then nor did they engage in negotiations with Brunson’s representatives."

Tim McMahon, ESPN

While some speculate the Mavericks were unwilling to sign Brunson long-term due to his playoff performance, another hesitation might have been roster construction. In the past off-season Dallas fired head coach Rick Carlisle, replacing him with Jason Kidd. In addition, forward Kristaps Porzingis and his $31M salary were the subject of multiple trade rumors. Had JB been re-signed before the season, Brunson would not have been eligible to be traded until the following off-season. 

Fast forward to the start of this season where the Maverick’s started off slow. A 12-13 record had them 8th in the Western Conference. On December 12, Kidd inserted Brunson permanently into the starting lineup and Dallas would go 40-17 the rest of the way. Porzingis was dealt at the deadline. Dorian Finney-Smith was signed to a four-year $52M extension. Meanwhile, Brunson remained unsigned. 

At this point in our story, let me introduce another key character in Jalen's father, Rick Brunson. Like his son, Rick was a high school McDonald's All-American before attending Temple University. While he didn't have quite the distinguished collegiate career of Jalen, he did go on to play professional basketball, including nine seasons in the NBA. A journeyman of sorts, Rick would play eight different franchises, some more than once. He has since become a coach at multiple levels. 

Jalen has clearly benefitted from the experience and tutelage of his father. One might describe his play as an “old-school” brand of basketball. Without the speed and athleticism to match some of today’s high-flying guards, Brunson prefers to play physical. Back to the basket. Mid-range. Which says a lot about a player listed at 6’1 190lbs. 

“I like to play with contact,. If I get contact, I can bump you off balance a little bit. I can either hesitate or in-and-out, or do something to get you off balance to either pull up, or go right by you. It’s something I learned. I had to. Bigger guys were always on me.” 

Jalen Brunson, via JJ Reddick's "The Old Man and The Three" podcast

It’s clear that Rick has the ear of his son when it comes to his game on the court but also appears to be heavily involved in the business side, or at least isn’t afraid to voice his opinion. With the amount of experience his father has, including signing 11 times as a free-agent, being waived six times and traded once, it’s clear he knows the in’s and out’s. Jalen is represented by Sam Rose and Aaron Mintz of CAA but clearly his father has his own input. 

“I told him once the season is started, that’s it. I told the Mavericks, ‘Once the season is started, there’s no contract talk,’ and I went back against my word. In January, I thought he did enough where he deserved [the extension]. I said, ‘Hey, take the money, man.’ He wants security. He wants to live here. And they declined. He didn’t turn s— down. Y’all declined first. When y’all came back to him, we said, ‘Hey, we just want to finish out the season and go from there.'”

Rick Brunson, Jalen's father

It was reported that Dallas did offer Brunson an extension, but not until after the NBA trade deadline. In fact, Tim McMahon claims they offered the extension immediately after the deadline passed. The Mavericks weren’t willing to offer an extension, possibly because they were entertaining trade offers. Either way, the lack of commitment could hold weight when free-agency opens up. Some might even see it as a slight.

For the 2021-22 season, Jalen Brunson averaged 16.3 points, 4.8 assists and 3.9 rebounds, on 50/37/84 shooting. As a starter, those numbers jumped to 17.5, 5.0, 4.1 on 50/39/85. In this year's playoffs, Brunson took on a larger scoring role finishing with 21.6, 3.7, 4.6 averages in the 18 games. This includes a 41-point performance in the Game 2 win over Utah in the first-round without Luka. In fact, in the three games Luka was out, JB averaged 32 points, 5.3, 5.3 on 51% shooting. In Game 3 against Phoenix, a near must-win as they were in a 0-2 hole, Brunson lead all scorers with 28 in the win. In this past series, Brunson had a 31 point effort in a Game 2 loss against the Warriors.

The basketball media has been speculating what Brunson might sign for. The “consensus” believes he will require a $20M+ salary annually. Maverick’s owner Mark Cuban has made it clear he will do whatever is necessary to keep Brunson. The team is over the salary cap and Brunson is unrestricted but they do retain his bird rights, thus allowing them to re-sign him well over the cap at the luxury penalty. With Cuban’s best team since the Dirk days, and his large wallet, he appears more than willing to do so. Keep in mind, that because they are over the cap already, Brunson’s departure doesn’t create new salary space. If he walks, they get nothing.

This is where the unrestricted part becomes a huge factor. Remember earlier when Brunson signed a unique deal for a 2nd-rounder? And instead of offering an extension in the off-season they picked up his team option? Well, Brunson can sign with any team he likes, even for less money or years than the Mavericks offer. 

There have been numerous reports that the team is well aware of the increased price tag and they will be unwilling to do any type of a sign-and-trade that helps another team land their new star. Recently, Rick said the Brunson camp will be unwilling to give the Maverick’s any type of a discount. With all the noise surrounding him, Jalen has blocked it out and is letting his play speak for itself.  

“My family knows I don’t want to talk about it until the season is over. That’s not going to help me right now. I know it’s a weird situation. People don’t think I’m not talking about it, but it’s not a topic of conversation until we’re done."

Jalen Brunson, before the playoffs

Is Mark Cuban bluffing? The reports, from both sides, feel a bit like posturing. I don't think Cuban is concerned about the luxury tax but I do wonder if there is a breaking point for competitive reasons. Is there a salary number that Dallas just deems too high? Would a certain salary demand change their stance on a sign and trade? While some might laugh at the idea of Brunson getting a max-deal and maybe Cuban doesn't think it's possible, but I wouldn't be so sure. Multiple teams have been rumored as potential destinations for Brunson with the Knicks, Pacers and Pistons appearing as early favorites. I'm not going to go project what factors are most important to JB (salary, years, roster, destination, coach, taxes, etc.) but I do want to entertain the idea of a team offering him the max.

Let’s use the Detroit Pistons for an example. Maybe they see Brunson, based on his play alongside Doncic, as the perfect backcourt match with Cade Cunningham? As current roster projects, the Pistons have roughly $26.5M in cap space this summer. In addition, their two highest paid players could very easily be moved for slightly lesser salaries. Jerami Grant has a $21M cap figure on an expiring deal. Kelly Olynyk has two-years at roughly $12.5M, but the last year is only guaranteed for $3M. Without getting too far into the game of playing GM, it’s easy to see where they would find the room to sign Brunson to a large number. Is it likely they would go all the way to the max? Hard to say, but what exactly would that look like?

  • 2022-23: $30,250,000
  • 2023-24: $31,762,500
  • 2024-25: $33,275,000
  • 2025-26: $34,787,500
  • Total: Four years, $130,075,000

Now, before you completely laugh off the idea that Brunson should be making something close to $30M, here’s a few names currently projected to make near that (or more) next season (rounding):

  • John Wall ($47)
  • Russell Wesbtrook ($47)
  • Klay Thompson ($40)
  • Tobias Harris ($38)
  • Kemba Walker ($36)
  • Ben Simmons ($34)
  • Kristaps Porzingis ($34)
  • Andrew Wiggins ($33)
  • D’Angelo Russell ($31)
  • De’Aaron Fox ($30)
  • Gordon Hayward ($30)
  • Michael Porter Jr. ($30)
  • Kevin Love ($29)
  • Kyle Lowry ($28)

Clearly, some of these names aren’t direct comparisons. A lot of these players are near the end of their deals, some have suffered serious injuries, etc. And I’m not saying Brunson is better than player “X” therefore he warrants the max deal. All I’m presenting is a few names that make a similar (or much greater) salary. In fact, this isn’t even half the list. Next season 39 players are projected to make north of $30M, with another 10+ making $25-$29.

The thing to keep in mind, while in a vacuum, one might argue that Brunson is not worth $130M over four seasons. However, when you factor in the idea that a team, the Pistons in this scenario, can acquire him by giving up no assets, it makes the large salary easier to swallow. The only asset being used to acquire JB is cap space. 

By that same measure, I doubt Dallas would be willing to lose a player like Brunson for nothing, if they can. In this scenario, let’s say the Pistons make this offer, and CAA reports back to the Mavericks that they would be willing to sign with Dallas but only for more money and/or more years. Here is an estimate of the absolute maximum the Mavericks can offer:

  • 2022-23: $30,250,000
  • 2023-24: $32,670,000
  • 2024-25: $35,090,000
  • 2025-26: $37,510,000
  • 2026-27: $39,930,000
  • Total: Five years, $175,450,000
The extra year is the Mavericks ace-in-the-hole. The rule is in place for situations just like this. Again, it’s hard to speculate what factors he values the most but a lot of players have chosen to go with the security of re-signing because of the additional guaranteed year. 
 
Let’s continue with this Detroit Pistons hypothetical even further. Assuming the max or even close to it, just isn’t available on the market. But maybe Brunson gets a four-year $100M offer from the Pistons. He says, I’m willing to sign with Dallas instead, but only for more money and/or years. Maybe something like five-years $120M. Dallas decides it’s just too expensive, don’t want to lose the asset for nothing and let’s Brunson know they will explore sign-and-trade offers. This also could be Brunson’s preferred course of action because in this scenario he could not only get more money and years but pick from a larger group of potential suitors. 

Another underwritten element to this tale's dramatic finish, is the play of Maverick's guard Spencer Dinwiddie. Acquired at the trade deadline from Washington (along with Davis Bertans) in the Porzingis trade, Dinwiddie hit the ground running for the Mav's. In the 23 regular season games he played, the team went 18-5, partly due to his contributions, including game-winners. From an efficiency standpoint, it was one of his best stretches of basketball he has played and he looked like the perfect bench compliment.

Prior to post-season play, media members speculated the reasons for the addition. Was he acquired as security if Brunson was to leave in FA? Was he brought in as leverage to the situation? Or was his addition an attempt to make up for past mistakes? The playoffs didn’t provide an answer. It possibly made it even more complicated.

Dinwiddie struggled against Utah, to say the least. In the opening series against the Jazz, he shot just 36%. A far cry from his near 50% we saw during the regular season. Against the Suns, his minutes in the first five games of this series were trending the wrong direction: 30, 28, 24, 19, 15. With him slumping on the offensive end, the extra playing time was given to Frank Ntilikina, who didn’t step on the court in the Jazz series. However, Dinwiddie had a major resurgence in GM6 and GM7, and he road that momentum into the WCF. During that stretch he looked like Dinwiddie from the regular season and on some nights, the 2nd best player behind Luka. 

Additionally, in recent years, Dallas has made a few moves they might like to have back. Trading away Seth Curry and extending Tim Hardaway Jr. raised a few eyebrows at the time. In hindsight, they probably prefer to do those deals over. With Brunson emerging as the best running mate Luka has played with in Dallas, there is tremendous pressure to get this right. 

"I don't think anyone has really defined what the requirements to be a max player are."

Former Eastern Conference GM

At the WCF Game 5 Postgame Press Conference, JB spoke about how difficult it was down the stretch to focus on the present. While trying to take it one day at a time, he and his family know there is a big decision looming this off-season. The Maverick's know this too.

Making a prediction in this situation feels frivolous. The NBA off-season is always full of surprises. If forced to make an educated guess, I would assume he returns to Dallas at something less than the max.  Hard to say exactly what that deal will look like. His performance has been elevated and he played this year at an extremely discounted rate. The number of teams interested should be long and it only takes one to make an offer above the rest. There is no more basketball to be played and as we approach the off-season, Brunson is holding all the cards. 

Throughout JB’s basketball career he’s made savvy decisions on and off the court. For more than a year, his future has been a mystery. Rumors suggest he could have been signed this time last year for possibly half as much as he will get now. At numerous points he or the Maverick’s could have hedged their bets and came to an agreement on a contract extension. However, he we are with the season over and still no answer. No matter the final outcome, it’s clear that by betting on himself Brunson made the right choice and will come out on top. 

“We’ve got to figure out if Dallas wants him. Not words. Ain’t no discount. So don’t put it on us. Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.”

Rick Brunson

The Dallas Mavericks had an “ALL IN” slogan for the playoffs. Jalen Brunson has taken calculated risks and pushed in his chips. Mark Cuban has his poker face on. Let’s see where the cards fall. 

Photo Credits:

  • Cooper Neil – NBAE via Getty Images
  • Ronald Martinez – Getty Images
  • Andy Jacobsohn – The Dallas Morning News
  • Tom Pennington – Getty Images
  • Temma Hankin – ABC via Getty Images 
  • Jim Poorten – NBAE via Getty Images
  • Jeff Swinger – NBAE via Getty Images 
  • Ron Jenkins – Getty Images 

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Patrick McLaughlin

Patrick McLaughlin

Just a basketball enthusiast who hopes you enjoy a point of view that I enjoy... https://linktr.ee/pat.d.mc

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